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Games and the Common Core: Two Movements That Need Each Other

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow
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Screen shot from the game Foldit, where students can design and manipulate proteins.

Recently I witnessed two expert panels discussing critical issues for our educational system -- on the same day. The first one was on implementing the Common Core for English-language learners; the second was on how games offer an exciting new frontier for student learning and engagement. In the morning, I listened in to an Alliance for Excellent Education panel including Stanford professor Kenji Hakuta and Carrie Heath Phillips, director of Common Core implementation at the Council of Chief State School Officers. That evening, I went to Stanford to hear a panel on Education’s Digital Future that included professors James Paul Gee of Arizona State and Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

I was struck by two things: 1) How neither community of experts mentioned the other, and 2) how these two "movements" urgently need to work together. They need each other. Twenty-first century implementation of the Common Core State Standards should strive for a much higher level of student engagement and choice. The best learning games can help accomplish this, whether it's learning about proteins through FoldIt, algebra with DragonBox, programming and game design via Gamestar Mechanic, or science, math, health and social studies with BrainPop.

And the games community needs to demonstrate how interest-driven and collaborative learning can accomplish the goals of the Common Core. Importantly, we should recognize that the Common Core Standards in language arts and math are outcomes, not subject areas, and that there should be multiple paths to achieving the higher and deeper standards through, for instance, project-based learning, experiences in nature, integration of the arts, and the fast-moving world of games and simulations.

Student Choice

Dr. Steinkuehler described a finding from one of her studies, showing that adolescent boys often read above grade-level when playing games, where the text is written at the 12th-grade level, but average two grades below on standardized tests of their reading. How could this be? Her interpretation is that boys are highly motivated to read text in the context of games. But they are unmotivated -- flat out bored -- by the texts they are required to read in class or analyze on tests. One boy told her that his teacher's approach taught The Diary of Anne Frank by having one student stand in front of the class and read aloud while others followed along in the book. He said, in an honest response to this form of mind-control, "I'd rather stand in the corner and hop on one foot." Dr. Steinkuehler added, "So would I."

Video: Constance Steinkuehler describes her research.


A key to achieving higher levels of student learning, whether through the Common Core or any other hoped-for reform, is something our school system has generally ignored: student choice. Our schools operate as an educational oligarchy where a small group of adults decides what, where and how millions of children and teens will learn. This power has been tightly held, with adults fearing a loss of control if students are allowed greater choice and voice in their own educations. Some historians of education might note that this fear stems from a centuries-old belief in childrearing that untamed children need discipline, not independent thinking.

Inventing the Future

If the Holy Grail of every educational reform, including the Common Core, is to raise a nation of readers, especially in this age when entire libraries are now at our students' fingertips, isn't the path to a love of reading illuminated by giving students more choice over what they read and when they read it? As Maya Angelou once wrote, "Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him." I wonder whether Ms. Angelou would now include games and graphic novels. And whether the paths taken by those liberated readers might at some point travel through The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill A Mockingbird or other classics.

I asked the Stanford panel about whether games could be integrated with the Common Core. Dr. Steinkuehler sounded an optimistic note. She said that if games can demonstrate their effectiveness in the Common Core, they will have a national market, improving their chances for distribution, profitability and future development. Dr. Gee was more pessimistic, suggesting that "standards mixed with punitive accountability are toxic and will undermine those standards." It reminded me of one of my favorite jokes:

Question: What's the difference between the optimist and the pessimist?
Answer: The pessimist has more data.

And Dr. Gee has history on his side.

Can that history of resistance to games and other learning technologies be changed? Whether games are creatively used to support Common Core standards is up to all of us. Collectively, we could advance this burgeoning field of learning games, conduct research on their outcomes, and advocate "games that work" to the many stakeholders involved. I'm reminded of Alan Kay's prescription: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

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CCSSI Mathematics's picture

What a bizarre article. Common Core assessments--long, tortuous slogs--are diametrically opposed to games.

LTS Education Systems's picture
LTS Education Systems
Publisher of Engaging Web-based Learning Platforms Built for Common Core

LTS Education Systems believes strongly in using games to support the Common Core. We're doing it right now through our Stride Academy and Kid's College learning platforms, and we're actively gathering outcomes data to back it up.

Our model of using games to support the Common Core is unique because we keep the Common Core-aligned curriculum and activities discrete from the gaming component. Other models may integrate their academic activities into a "learning game," but our research shows that educators and students prefer quite the opposite. The result is that our design does not compromise the rigor and high standards of the Common Core, nor does it compromise the games for the students. They are motivated to work hard on the academic tasks for the reward of brief playing time in sports, arcade, and other games that rival what they play on their consoles and mobile devices.

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

Students will always do better when they are emotionally engaged. Their brains are more efficient at these times because of the release of dopamine and opiods, long term memory centers are open for retrieval and storage and new neuro pathways are highly susceptible for new learning. Teachers know how to engage their students emotionally and we long for the day when we are allowed by time and management to do so. In the mean time, I can get a few games into our classes as well as using a ton of educational songs from Singing and moving is the BEST way to engage the whole body in the learning process. You should hear my 1st & 2nd graders sing all the multiplication tables (2's - 13's)!. I'll leave out a number and they jump up & sing out the correct answers at the top of their lungs. What ENERGY! What's even more surprising is that my kindergarteners & 1st graders enter class BEGGING to sing the Periodic Table of the Elements by memory naming the element & its symbol all the way from Hydrogen to Meitnerium. They LOVE to learn THIS WAY because their brains are fully engaged. There is NOTHING they cannot learn when music is the delivery system. the sky is the limit. When teaching is done correctly, the child would rather learn than do anything else. Music & the music games we use in class are more successful than any other strategy that I've used in 24 years. has songs for our language arts, mathematics, spelling history and more. If you can teach a child to teach them self, they will fall in love with learning for a lifetime, and isn't that what it's all about?

Randal Hendee's picture

The author must not be familiar with the grim realities of these "standards"--poorly conceived and executed, untested, developmentally inappropriate. written with testing in mind (and judging from early samples, poorly written tests), and, as currently being implemented, not conducive to any of the worthy practices he mentions. Certainly not conducive to gaming. Mr. Chen doesn't seem to understand what an enormous boondoggle the whole enterprise has been from the outset. The "CCSS" are guaranteed to hurt students and teachers by engendering even more boredom and stress than they already face. Learning through discovery, self expression, and creating things is anathema to the assumptions the "standards" are based upon. (Just listen to Mr. Coleman's own words!)

Ed Gragert's picture

Thanks, Milton, for asking us to explore how gaming can enhance learning in language arts. There is parallel activity in global competency, using games like Half the Sky, Get Water, Touchable Earth to build awareness of the world and its issues, as well as to take action to address them. I recently wrote about this: Our organization, Global Campaign for Education-US is now mapping each of these games to the Common Core--as we have done for the "Lesson For All," a curriculum that looks at the issue of the 132 million young people who do not have access to elementary education.


Erin's picture
Eighth Grade science teacher from Illinois

Your article hit quite close to home with me. You see, being an educator it has always been the utmost importance to me to bestow a love of reading to my children and relatives. I would cringe each time I traveled to my sister's home, just to see my nephew trapped away in his bedroom playing video games. I would insist to my sister the value of nightly reading and reinforcement of math facts at the dinner table, to which she sloughed off and quickly ignored. Years have passed now, and her practices have not changed, but what has changed is my opinion of video games. My nephew's desperate desire to increase levels and maximize playing time encourage his reading skills and math skills. This authentic learning environment that included a desire to learn served as a catalyst to his higher order thinking skills when playing role playing and strategy games. That nephew went on to be placed in the gifted program at our local district and is now in all advanced placement classes. I think we often underestimate the skills acquired during games and will no longer be holding the controllers away from my children!

Susan Weikel Morrison's picture
Susan Weikel Morrison
Science Education Program Developer, Sci-Q Systems

I totally agree with connecting these two areas. The already posted negative comments from professional educators and the positive remarks by game producers shows that initiative for promoting gaming as an instructional tool will have to come primarily from the game producers.

I don't blame the educators for their negativity, one little bit. They have been ground down by the punitive, rigid system that's been the unintended consequence of year-end assessment using standardized summative tests, especially but not exclusively in California, and primarily for those who teach children of poverty.

The curriculum has narrowed to just what's on the test. Teachers are discouraged (and worse) from doing anything remotely outside textbook-based instruction or skill drills through worksheets or computer programs.

The Common Core Standards seem at first reading to discourage rigidity, but if our current testing and accountability system continues unchanged, the needs of bureaucracy will twist Common Core into something unrecognizable.

I know this because I've seen it happen before. Great educational ideas and innovations are uniformly mashed into pointless and tasteless pablum, the only difference being that the NCLB made the pablum a bit poisonous, too.

Oh, and I've already been approached by a test question vendor asking if I'd like to start writing multiple choice questions based on Common Core even though Common Core is really incompatible with multiple choice. So the perversion of another good idea is already starting.

Day B's picture

This is horrible. Common Core is hurting younger children in Math already. Many K-12 math teachers are quitting their jobs because of how bad CC is getting. Making games will just add less power to the teachers and kids will fall even further behind

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